Working for a media organization that covers taxes certainly has its perks. It’s a fast-paced environment in which every day is different. We are constantly looking for breaking news and take our job to report on important tax-related events seriously. And whether or not anyone else agrees, tax is a fantastic beat.
Still, it’s not easy to report on taxes, and the reporters at Tax Notes have noticed a disturbing trend lately. Government speakers are increasingly asking, or are willing, to speak at events that are closed to the press.
Just last week, a Tax Analysts reporter got kicked off a webcast in which a state commissioner of revenue was speaking. There was no prior indication that the event was closed, and the webcast was produced by a law firm. But an attempt by our reporter to sign into it was met with a screen that said his session had ended.
A few months ago, a university tried to prevent a reporter from covering an event where IRS and Treasury Department officials were speaking. The reporter was eventually allowed to cover it , but only after much arguing about the propriety of closing an event with government speakers discussing important tax topics.
As a caveat to this, I have to acknowledge that the IRS is generally respectful of the role of the press at events, and IRS officials have declined to speak if an event is closed. More government agencies and officials should take the same approach.
Tax officials must acknowledge that compliance stems from trust and that taxpayer trust stems from knowledge. The media’s ability to fully cover tax legislation, implementing regulation, tax-related court cases, and general discussions on tax issues directly leads to taxpayer knowledge, which in turn leads to taxpayer trust. When government officials speak to select groups, it leads those outside the groups to believe they are less important or less informed. Either way, their trust in the system is compromised.
I want to go on the record and say that it is improper for a state department of revenue, as well as federal tax officials, to make high-level public officials available to speak at an invitation-only meeting from which the press is excluded. The public should not look favorably on a government offering preferential treatment to a professional services firm or any other group so that only their clients and special invitees can hear what an official has to say about important tax topics.